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Social Cognition Within Complex Systems: A Descriptive Case Study of How Product Support Managers Experience Public-Sector Defense Acquisition Environments Open Access

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This qualitative, descriptive case study explored the social learning process within complex systems as described by product support managers (PSMs) assigned to acquisition programs within the Naval Air Systems Command. The research questions asked how individuals, as influenced by their values and structure, shape their interactions and behavior in a complex environment. Nine PSMs for major acquisition and sustainment programs were referred by senior leaders and participated in the study.Data were collected through in-depth interviews that were transcribed to capture the PSMs’ experiences and then synthesized into contextual and social learning profiles. The findings resulted in seven themes. (1) PSMs operate in complex, dynamic, and variably resourced environments that are highly dependent on interaction and result in uniquely executed programs. (2) The highly structured environment and functionally oriented structure diminish the authority of the individual and present barriers to interaction. (3) The highly structured and boundary-rich environment limits information flow and presents difficulty in communication and developing routines that align meanings, value orientations, and shared understanding across those boundaries. (4) PSMs attempt to adjust, increase, and routinize interactions but often react to emerging needs with limited authority and resources, which often leaves short-term and least helpful alternatives. (5) PSMs leverage key relationships as bridges of information but often receive limited feedback to resolve short-term issues to complete tasks. (6) PSMs are aligned with organizational goals and values to improve user outcomes and speed of delivering products, but there is value incongruency between expectations and what they want to do to achieve those outcomes. (7) PSMs experience role ambiguity, as they are torn between how much they want to develop the team and interactions versus becoming an expert and accomplishing tasks.The study concluded that PSMs are effectively leveraging different operating system views to maximize the variety of the small alternatives they have; countering the power of the system through meaning making, developing their unique abilities (as well as their team’s) and trying to reduce their isolation; and increasing the available space for social learning to make progress through trial and error and satisficing.

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